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New local group looks into incorporating Big Sky

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A municipality would require population density of 200 primary residents per square mile, and limits would include the meadow (shown) and possibly part of the Gallatin Canyon near the Ramshorn neighborhood, according to research by Big Sky Local Governance. PHOTO BY CHRIS KAMMAN

Sources point to Big Sky’s growth and potential as reasons for fresh perspective on local government

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

A formal effort to look into whether Big Sky should incorporate resurfaced Wednesday for the first time since the mid-2000s.

The topic came up during a Big Sky Resort Area District board meeting, when representatives from Big Sky Local Governance, Inc. spoke briefly with the board about their main objective: Testing the viability of turning the unincorporated community into a formal municipality. 

Tim Kent, a representative of the group who was unable to attend the BSRAD meeting, spoke on the phone with Explore Big Sky. He said the group has intermittently met for four or five months and—as the group begins to pique the public’s interest—they want to counter potential misinformation and “[be] very factual… it’s a research-oriented effort.” 

Kent added, “we want people to get involved and get involved in a productive way. The group is all about researching these questions, finding answers and publicizing them.” 

The possibility of incorporating is a sign of community success, Kent reasoned.  

“We’re not doing this because [Big Sky is] shriveling and dying and nobody is moving here. It’s a sign that population has doubled, or more, since this was last looked at. It’s really not rational to think that we’re just going to grow and grow and not need more governance to go with it.” 

Kent gave credit to the vast amount of nonprofits in Big Sky, and the “amazing” level of engagement from community leaders in those organizations. Big Sky Local Governance does not intend to reduce or impede the efforts of those organizations, he said, but added that “nonprofits are not a government.” 

“[Big Sky Local Governance] is a true ad-hoc group, born out of a growing awareness that there were a lot of issues in the community that not any one individual business or entity could address, and we should probably start focusing on,” Kent said. “It’s not a criticism of any group or any effort that’s been made. Just the realization that it could be better.” 

‘Not a special interest decision’ 

With regards to the last time Big Sky considered incorporation from 2006 to 2008, Kent said there was talk of incorporating across county lines—to include Big Sky Resort and Mountain Village located in Madison County—and that the Simkins family “[was] very adamant against [incorporating] and did everything they could to see it didn’t get to the voters.” 

The Simkins family originally owned and developed portions of Town Center, and sources say liquor licensing laws were a primary reason for the developers’ reluctance.  

Liquor licensing may remain a key point of contention, as incorporation would immediately disqualify Big Sky from adding more licenses, according to one source involved with Big Sky Local Governance. The number of liquor licenses for a town or city is tied to the population under Montana law, and while current liquor licenses active in Big Sky would be grandfathered in, it’s unlikely that new licenses would be issued until the town’s population crossed a given threshold. 

A town of more than 3,000 people—Big Sky as a census designated area has roughly 3,500 people—would be allowed five full liquor licenses, with one more license available for each additional 1,500 residents. Complicating that math, however, is the likelihood that an incorporated Big Sky would not have the same boundaries and population of the current census designated area. 

Incorporation could therefore be a conflict of interest for developers looking to open bars, restaurants and hotels.  

“This is not a special interest decision,” Kent said. “This is a decision of everyone who is registered to vote in the impact area. That’s who should make the determination of whether this effort moves forward. [We’re] public oriented, everyone can sit at the table and make contributions.” 

Big Sky has changed in terms of population, visitation and community in the past 15 years, and Kent said this topic should be viewed independently of prior attempts to incorporate. One difference in this approach, sources say, is that the current vision does not include Madison County, which would require time-consuming efforts in dealing with state law, especially considering that parts of Big Sky in Madison County do not meet minimum population requirements.  

Population density must be 200 people per square mile, determined by census data—part-time residents who reported primary residence elsewhere are excluded.  

“It’s pretty clear the only places that meet the population density are the meadow and the canyon, around Ramshorn,” Kent said. As the group currently understands it, those would be the limits of the municipality which means laws could not be enforced on individuals and organizations outside the municipal boundary. 

“Municipality [is] the most used and understood form of government in Montana, and seen around the world,” Kent said. “It should be something that’s very familiar to people. 

‘Coexist’ with Resort Tax 

Kent pointed to other resort communities, in which resort tax collections are used to fund municipal government. However, he said Big Sky’s case is unique as resort tax has existed in the absence of government, whereas many other resort communities were incorporated beforehand. It’s a misconception that BSRAD would lose its authority to fund nonprofits and other organizations.  

“It’s absolutely not going to gut resort tax,” Kent said, adding that a state official advised that a municipality and resort area district would “coexist.” 

Comparable mountain resort communities by state, based on 2020 census data. Big Sky’s population grew from 2,308 in the 2010 census. DATA COURTESY OF STEVE JOHNSON

Big Sky Local Governance pursued a consultant, but quickly realized that with Montana’s last incorporation in 1999, forming a municipality is not anyone’s specialty.  

“We need help, we need people to get involved and help present a fair and accurate picture to the community,” Kent said.  

He estimated that the first public forums will be held at some point in early summer. In the meantime, community members can volunteer to participate in monthly meetings by reaching out to the group via email.  

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